Inside Track: Legal Research: Accessing Digital Collections:

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    Legal Research: Accessing Digital Collections

    Need the history of a particular location or event? Check out the many digital collections in Wisconsin's universities and colleges, public libraries, and state departments.

    Diane Duffey

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    Nov. 6, 2019 – Libraries continue to transform in the Information Age. While the importance of a visit to the library can never be understated, many libraries are increasingly offering digital collections to researchers, frequently via remote access.

    Digital collections are especially useful for historical and local research.

    Digital collections or archives are repositories of documents or photographs which are made available in a format that is accessible via a computer. Access to the documents may be provided via a catalog platform, which houses the documents usually in a static format such as PDF, TIFF, JPG, etc.

    An institution hosts and curates collections, which are typically grouped together thematically. The documents are sometimes made freely available on the internet to institution library card holders or, more frequently, all website visitors.

    Here are a few digital collections to help you in your legal research.

    Wisconsin Digital Archives

    Probably the most significant digital collection for the state’s legal professionals is the Wisconsin Digital Archives. Managed by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI), it is a collaborative effort to make Wisconsin state documents available to the public, as mandated by statute, through the Wisconsin Document Depository Program.

    Diane Duffeycom DDuffey Habush Diane Duffey is the Director of Research Services at Habush Habush & Rottier S.C., Milwaukee. She is a current member and past president of the Law Librarians Association of Wisconsin.

    The collection consists of more than 15,000 state government documents that generally date back to 2001, although many older items are present as well. New content is continually being added.

    Users can browse by subject, format, publisher (generally, the state agency or department), or date. Or they can perform a simple search with keywords. The advanced search offers the ability to search by field (date, publisher, format, etc.), and users can cross-reference search using up to four fields. Results can be filtered by date, publisher, format, language or subject.

    The DPI provides helpful instruction sheets which give tips on searching by format and other means.

    Content from most state departments includes (but is not limited to):

    • statistical reports in abundance, such as the Wisconsin Children in Out-of-Home Care Report;

    • guides, such as the Wisconsin Public Records Law Compliance Guide;

    • newsletters, such as The Wisconsin Prosecutor;

    • studies, for example, the 1980 Highway Functional Classification Study;

    • surveys, such as the 2017 Wisconsin Youth Risk Behavior Survey, and many surveys from the Department of Transportation;

    • annual and biennial reports, and also budget and financial reports from the state and from various departments;

    • economic impact reports – for example, Wisconsin Tourism’s Economic Impact; and

    • some conference proceedings, especially from the Wisconsin Tribal Transportation Conference.

    Within the Wisconsin Digital Archives are the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau Digital Collections. Subcollections here are generally grouped as follows:

    • Legislative Reference Bureau Publications – covers legislative and budget briefs, redistricting, Informational Memorandums, and more;

    • Legislative Council publications – over 1,000 documents which include annual reports, studies, and more;

    • mandated reports to the Legislature from state agencies;

    • press releases and public relations by members of the legislature – browsable by subject, author, date;

    • Legislative Fiscal Bureau Publications, Legislative Audit Bureau Publications; and

    • legislative materials – includes a few dozen items, such as the State of the Tribes Address from various years

    (Note that the Wisconsin State Legislature’s Session Archive still houses older bills, acts, drafting files, etc.)

    Digital Collections at Public Libraries

    Public libraries provide digital collections as well – the focus tends to be on history, especially local. Access may vary. For example, the Milwaukee Public Library (MPL) offers remote access to its digital collections to users who have an MPL-issued library card. Other users must come to the library.

    While the primary purpose of public library collections is personal curiosity, certain ones may be practical for local and historical research purposes. Some notable MPL collections include:

    • Milwaukee historic photos;

    • “Remember When,” a collection that includes photos with entries like “Remember when 6th and Wisconsin looked like this?”;

    • Milwaukee Waterways;

    • Milwaukee Maps;

    • Milwaukee Road Archives;

    • Milwaukee Mayors;

    • Project Shipshape – although not (yet) in digital format, this database indexes documents for over 10,000 Great Lakes vessels; and

    • Digital Sanborn Maps, 1867-1970 – these are fire insurance maps of buildings in more than 250 Wisconsin communities from 1867-1970.

    Collections in Academic Libraries

    Academic institutions are another trove of worthwhile digital offerings. Academic libraries curate collections available not just to their students, but also the public.

    Their collections tend to center on local neighborhoods and figures, and also documents and photos related to the university itself. They also often extend to special collections on various academic pursuits in different studies, such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Dovie Horvitz Collection (women’s history).

    UW-Milwaukee’s digital collections in particular reside on the same platform as that of Wisconsin Digital Archives; search functionality is the same. A closer look at this collection includes:

    • maps from the American Geographical Society;

    • Sanborn Maps of Milwaukee, 1894-1910 (while MPL’s digital Sanborn map collection is more expansive in scope and location, these can be accessed without a library card);

    • March on Milwaukee: documents, photos from 1960s civil rights demonstrations; and

    • WTMJ News Search: 1950-80: this collection features close to 50,000 items, including news clips, special reports, and footage of some legislative sessions from the 1960s; reports on school desegregation, and the Milwaukee Braves. Note that this collection is only partially digitized, and may only be viewed at the UWM Archives.

    Many academic institutions house oral history projects. These are typically transcripts and/or audio files of interviews with prominent local figures. UW-Milwaukee’s Oral History Project includes interviews with former Milwaukee mayors Frank Zeidler and Henry Maier. UW-LaCrosse’s Murphy Library has oral histories of noteworthy locals like Barbara Frank and Charles Conrad.

    Universities naturally produce many specialized academic and research publications. The University of Wisconsin system coordinates a system-wide resource called MINDS@UW, which is “designed to store, index, distribute, and preserve the digital materials of the University of Wisconsin.”

    MINDS@UW can be browsed by specific university, e.g., MINDS@UW-Whitewater, by title, subject, author and date. Tens of thousands of documents reside in this repository, including papers such as “Policy Issues in Cruise Line Operations on the Great Lakes,” from UW-Superior, and also theses, college newsletters, and much more.

    Check Out Collections for Your Area

    While the digital collections list above focus on the author’s hometown of Milwaukee, there are Wisconsin public and academic libraries offering digital collections all across the state.

    Explore what your local libraries have to offer. On their webpages, look for a link to “digital collections,” “digital archives” or “digital library.”


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